It’s World War II. We’re in Budapest (Hungary). More specifically, we are under the Buda Castle Hill, in the middle of a corridor crowded with injured people. You can hear screams, pained moans and weeping. One of the only six doctors available runs by you with a stethoscope encircling his neck. His eyes are red from weariness, and if you knew him well, you would notice that in the last few weeks his face has aged considerably. In the enclosed, sultry corridor, you see him enter a room – if it can be called like this. It’s almost a closet. But inside are three patients. You don’t even want to imagine what he’s doing there, but you squirm with the sounds that come out of it.
That scene came to my mind when I was on a tour inside the Hospital in the Rock. The place was used as an underground hospital managed by the Red Cross during the Second World War (more precisely from December 1944 to January 1945), and then again in 1956 during the Budapest Revolution, to treat wounded victims and soldiers. Between 1958 and 1962 it was upgraded as a top secret facility to protect a few selected people, should there be a nuclear attack (basically, it was turned into a nuclear bunker). As there never was an actual nuclear attack (thank God), the place was forgotten until reopening for visits in 2008.
They used wax models (like in Madame Tussauds) and what was left of the original medical and electrical equipment to create reproductions of almost all the rooms inside the facility – there are six miles of tunnels (10 km) interconnecting caves and tiny rooms. You only walk one mile (give or take) on the tour, but that’s more than enough to get an idea of the place.
They even put a helicopter that was used to bring wounded to the hospital in one of the caves – the guide told us with a secretive whisper that the parts were dismembered to accomplish the task – so we could have a better idea of all that was happening at that time. Not that there was any situation where a helicopter entered those tunnels in one piece, but the intention was to show everything, including how most of the patients were brought to the door of the hospital.
Want more? Here it goes: before people even thought about using the caves for that, they were used for many centuries as a kind of a storage facility for villagers and citizens of the city. Being inside those caves, seeing the reproduction of what went on when it was a hospital, knowing it was much older than all of this and imagining all the possible things that might have happened there; let me tell you, it’s a pretty overwhelming experience.
That scene that I described in the beginning, I practically saw it happening before my eyes when I was inside the caves and it made me cry a little. It had occurred to me while seeing that imaginary scene unfold that several lives were saved by a bunch of dedicated doctors despite the extremely hard conditions. There was a period where they didn’t even have water supply because the Germans mistakenly hit the pipes while – well, I don’t really remember what they were doing, but it was not related to the hospital.
Really painful things happened there, and my tears were in part an empathetic reflex of it. When they were in their worst, without water and ventilation, they used the same dirty and bloody cloths over and over, in several patients. A lot of lives were lost because of it. But a lot of them were saved too. There were even some babies that were born in one of those rooms, and they were healthy enough to grow up and return to visit it as adults.
Despite all of the horror, the misery, the deprivation and the hardship, the doctors and nurses stayed there and did the best they could to ensure that at least some of those suffering war casualties would heal. And because of that, because of those people that were saved and the babies that were born and the unbreakable determination of the medical team and whoever else helped them, my tears were of pride too. Because even in the worst possible situations – whether created by human themselves or not – we can still be resilient enough to survive and, more than that, thrive.
It makes it easier to believe in a better world, doesn’t it?
PS: you can’t take pictures inside (maybe to keep the element of surprise?), so I couldn’t register it with anything besides my memory, but I took the liberty of picking one from Google.